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TNF Takeaways: Cowboys Find Another Way To Win, Vikings Slide Continues

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The Dallas Cowboys won their 11th consecutive football game on Thursday night, and for the first time during their nearly season-long streak, it can be said with some certainty that they had no business emerging victorious.

The Cowboys did just enough to beat the Minnesota Vikings to move to 11-1 on the season, getting a few timely plays late that made up for an evening spent repeatedly shooting themselves in the foot.

It was the first time all season Dallas really struggled to put points on the board, and a lot of that was caused by penalties that consistently put them behind the sticks, a place from which their offense is not designed to execute successfully. Outside of a few long runs, Ezekiel Elliott looked average. Other than a deep ball down the field to Dez Bryant to set up Dallas’ first touchdown, Dak Prescott was mediocre and had his fourth lost fumble of the season. The NFC-best defense of the Vikings did its job.

And yet, Dallas kept on rolling, getting a key turnover on special teams to swing the game their way in the fourth quarter when the outlook was at its most bleak and then a big stand on defense when Minnesota had a chance to tie, to preserve the win.

“We’ve found ways to win tough games against good football teams,” Lee said. “That’s, I think, a sign of what our team has been all year.”

It’s a sign of what makes this Cowboys team a special bunch, and what has to be one of the favorites to play in Super Bowl LI in Houston this February.

“I like to use the word ‘fight’ as much as ‘resilience,’” coach Jason Garrett said. “We just kept battling. We kept fighting. And individually guys came back, the units came back to overcome different things. As a team, we kept picking each other up. Scratch and claw and fight, it’s the foundation of what we try and do each and every day with the Cowboys.”

Things got off to a slow start for Dallas, thanks in large part to the play of the Minnesota defense, combined with some bonehead plays and penalties by the offense. Elliott scampered for 12 yards on his first carry of the game, but a false start by Tyron Smith on the next play put the Cowboys behind the sticks for the first of many times on the evening and they never recovered. On the second play of the second drive, Elliott put the ball on the ground, and although upon review it was determined that he recovered the ball, it put Dallas in a third and long they couldn’t pick up.

Minnesota took the lead on a field goal shortly thereafter and Dallas looked to answer back on the ensuing drive when Elliott broke off a 43-yard run to the Vikings 5. However, Cowboys right tackle Doug Free was flagged for holding away from the play, bringing the ball all the way back. Three plays later, Lucky Whitehead put the ball on the ground and it was recovered by Minnesota.

Fortunately for the struggling Dallas offense, the defense kept them in the game all night by limiting Minnesota’s offensive effectiveness as well. The Cowboys finally hit on a big play on their fourth drive of the night when Prescott hit Bryant for a 56-yard gain to the 1. Elliott punched it in from there and Dallas took a 7-3 lead. Two plays into the next Vikings possession, Cowboys linebacker Anthony Hitchens picked off Sam Bradford on a beautiful read, but that too was called back because of a hands to the face penalty on Orlando Scandrick. It was the first of three straight penalties on the Dallas defense totaling 20 yards.

But in a theme of the evening, Minnesota never took full advantage of what Dallas had given them. Despite the Cowboys gifting them 20 yards, they still had to punt on that drive and couldn’t even swing field position because of a weak kick from punter Jeff Locke. As a result, the score remained 7-3 at halftime.

Minnesota got a little bit of traction on the Dallas defense on the second drive of the second half and put three points on the board to make it a one-point game. Then four plays into the ensuing Cowboys drive, after a bonehead holding penalty put Dallas in a 1st-and-20, Prescott was caught holding the ball too long looking for an open receiver, had it knocked out of his hand by Brian Robison and the Vikings recovered deep in Dallas territory. But again the Cowboys defense kept Minnesota from doing all they could to capitalize. Despite starting their drive in the red zone, they settled for a field goal and a 9-7 lead.

The Vikings defense held strong, forcing Dallas to punt, but that was where the game swung to the Cowboys. As returner Adam Thielen looked to bring the ball up the field, gunner Vince Mayle wrapped him up by the legs and linebacker Kyle Wilber came in, punched the ball out and fell on it at the 8. Thielen was initially ruled down by contact, but a review reversed the call, giving a clear recovery to Dallas. It was the first takeaway for the Cowboys since October 30. A screen pass to Dez Bryant on the very next play put the Cowboys in the end zone and back in the lead.

“This team is not just one unit,” Wilber said. “It’s all three of our units fighting for each other. If the offense lags, the defense has to pick it up. If the defense lags, special teams has to pick it up. It’s the epitome of a team win.”

That it was. The Dallas defense maintained the lead and on the first play of their next drive on offense Elliott broke off a 30-yard run to get them into range to put the game away. However, the Dallas offense still couldn’t finish the drive and settled for three, giving Minnesota a glimmer of hope. When the Vikings punted the ball away on their ensuing possession, it seemed the Cowboys would salt the game away on the ground. But after Prescott slid short of the sticks on a second down run that could’ve sealed the deal, he and center Travis Frederick botched the third down snap, giving Elliott no chance to pick up the 3rd and 1 and forcing a punt.

Minnesota drove all the way to the end zone on their last-gasp drive, scoring on a soft Dallas defense with a screen pass to Jerick McKinnon that made it a two-point game with the conversion pending. But after a false start on the first attempt for two set them back five yards, the Vikings couldn’t convert as Bradford’s throw sailed well out of the back of the end zone while the refs missed a hit to his helmet that may have extended the game. However, the officiating was porous on both sides all night, a theme for the NFL this season, so it’s hard to get too worked up about that lone miss without accounting for others.

One team overcame those errors and one didn’t, and Dallas being that team is quite the change of course from previous Cowboys teams we’ve known under Jason Garrett.

It’s how they’ve won three games in a 12-day stretch in three very different ways. First came a dominating defeat of the Baltimore Ravens, owners of the league’s top-ranked defense at the time, in which they played keep-away and owned possession for the vast majority of the game. Then a shootout victory over the Redskins that saw their defense shredded and the offense pick them up. And now a pulse-pounding win over another top tier defense, in which the offense struggled, the defense picked them up and special teams made a game-changing play.

They’re all signs that this is a different Dallas team than we’ve come to expect. Maybe it’s the emergence of Prescott and Elliott, two rookies who can’t buy into the “here we go again” ways of the Cowboys because they haven’t been there before. Maybe it’s the dominating offensive line, which allows Dallas to play ball-control in a way few other teams can. Maybe it’s continuity on both sides of the ball, especially on defense where the personnel has stayed the same and grown together over the past few seasons and more importantly the scheme hasn’t changed, allowing that personnel, regardless of their level of talent, to get comfortable and fill the roles they’re meant to fill.

It’s probably a combination of all of those things that has put the Cowboys where they are, at 11-1, the clear favorite in the NFC and perhaps the league, with everyone asking, what or who can possibly stop them? As they keep on finding new and impressive ways to win, it’s hard to see anyone that can at this point.

VIKING FUNERAL

While the Cowboys continued to thrive, their latest victory came at the expense of a Minnesota team that has spent the last seven weeks mostly floundering.

The Vikings went into their Week 6 bye at 5-0, coming off a string of dominant performances. Since then, they are 1-6 and are more often the team that is being dominated. In less than two months they’ve gone from the team to beat in the NFC to a longshot playoff team, and Thursday night showed us many of the reasons why both happened.

Minnesota still has what may arguably be the best defense in the league. They frustrated and confused the unflappable Prescott, sacking him three times and forcing him into a few rare and nearly game-breaking mistakes. They broke through the vaunted Dallas offensive line and stuffed Elliott time and time again, a few long runs aside. They limited a Dallas offense that averages nearly 400 yards per game to just over 250.

However, the Vikings offense — down to its bare bones in terms of talent — couldn’t get the job done and failed to capitalize time and time again. They settled for field goals when touchdowns would have given them the momentum, not to mention the points, they needed, until the last drive of the night. They let a Dallas defense that generally struggles to get to the quarterback take shots at Sam Bradford far too often. And they failed to take advantage of the mistakes that Dallas defense made.

Worst of all, they made mistakes themselves to keep the Cowboys in and ultimately give them the game. Locke shanked punt after punt, Bradford took too many sacks, and Thielen coughed up the ball on the pivotal play of the game. Certainly good teams can overcome mistakes like that, and Thursday was proof the 2016 Minnesota Vikings are not that, while the 2016 Dallas Cowboys are.

It’s not entirely in their control, they’ve been decimated by injuries in a way few teams have been in the recent history of the league. But their front office made a big gamble trading for Bradford and it’s looking more and more like that gamble has gone bust. It won’t be long before they’re passed in the standings by the Green Bay Packers, and the Lions, already above them, are a better team, too. The ship in Minnesota is sinking fast, and in a few short weeks they’ll be left to wonder, what happened? How did we go from 5-0 to this? The answer is in the mirror.


About Devon Jeffreys

Devon Jeffreys